This is the prelude to the first of five blog post about writing in video games. I’ve always found video game development to be one of the most interesting things in entertainment, as nothing compares to its complexity. While I am certainly no expert in programming or visual design, I do know quite a bit about writing. On top of this, I’m generally well informed about the industry. It’s always fascinating to see a team of several hundred people spend several years (if not more) creating a work of art that is subject to intense scrutiny every step of the way. So many components have to be created, arranged, and then rearranged under high-pressure deadlines. It’s amazing anything actually gets out of the door!
Making movies is hard. There are crazy actors (Tom Cruise), pedophile directors (James Gunn), and corporations that are always shifting (Disney buying something). Nonetheless, movies are largely stable and predictable in production. Someone is going to take a camera somewhere and artfully point it at people playing make-believe. There will be video and sound editing afterward, along with a good dash of computer-generated imagery. Almost all mainstream movies will then be finalized and sent to theaters nationwide after an expensive marketing blitz. Rinse and repeat. Not surprisingly, this stable production system allows for decent writing (at least under ideal circumstances).
The production of video games is anything but a stable system. Publishers and developers regularly go bankrupt, often times killing a game’s development instantly. Operating consoles (with radically different hardware) come and go, constantly causing a shifting foundation for software minded developers. Mechanics and interface systems are always advancing at a rapid rate, with each step forward endangering the modernity of the last game released. Lastly, everyone has a radically different opinion on what makes a video game great. Is it graphics? Is it gameplay? Is it being innovative? All of the above? No one really knows, yet failing to appease the public’s opinion will result in disaster.
And then we get to the writing process. While movie scripts might be subject to multiple redrafts, rarely does a major revision have to occur because of someone not being able to point a camera in a certain fashion. All video games are powered by coded “engines,” which are always being tinkered with and have limitations. Sometimes a proposed scene might have to be scrapped simply because it cannot be rendered with stability. On top of all of this, video games are often dynamic and branching in their storytelling. A linear movie will tell the same story every time, even if there is no audience in the theater to watch it. In contrast, video games are always taking user input and reacting in volatile ways.
To summarize, even narrative-driven games are not actually driven by the narrative. Writing always plays second fiddle to technical design and user gameplay. Nonetheless, many a brave soul has ventured forth to innovate in the field of writing for video games, crafting scripts in a design process that would make a movie screenwriter faint in shock. Writing for video games is essentially the avant-garde for writing in general, constantly advancing over a pile of successes and failures in a never-ending quest for greatness. In my opinion, such successful literary ventures are worthy of great praise from all artists, even if they do not play video games. Quite frankly, this medium is the future of writing.
Over the next five weeks, I will talk about five distinct video game series that push the envelope in writing (to varying degrees of success). Each of these five companies is based out of a different nation and their stories do not all take place in the last 10 years. Some are deeply personal to the creators, while others are literally national. I’ll try to keep things focused and brief, but I do want to highlight the developmental drama that helped foster these landmark series in their creation. I hope you enjoy this multi-blog is analysis as much as I do! Next week, Part I: Final Fantasy, the Fabula Nova Crystallis development saga.